How Orcas Hotel 5.0's First Employee Found Inspiration—and Her Musical Soul—in Bali
Updated: Sep 2
Editor’s note: The team members at Orcas Hotel have a secret to share—they’re in this for more than a j-o-b. Each non-management staffer participates in a pioneering apprenticeship program that includes plenty of front- and back-of-the-house work and training, but also invites them to learn how to keep the books for a hotel-restaurant business, how to manage everything from wrangling the espresso machine to flipping rooms, and how to grow personally though individualized development grids that include challenge ranging from learning a musical instrument to mastering foraged-fruit tarts. Hundreds sent in their applications; only a handful were selected as the founding staff. They hail from across the country and each have incredible backstories—one is a recovering marketing strategist fresh off three Michelin-star restaurant stages in Europe; another is a green witch in the Wise Woman tradition; another is a young visionary entrepreneur from the Great Lakes; yet another is a former scholarship athlete turned top-flight mixologist.
New Mexico native Emily Silks was the first of them to report for duty in March 2020; today she undertakes everything from pastry cheffing to organic gardening to inn-keeping to learning Spanish from her colleague (as part of her development grid).
Her not-so-secret superpower is music. In fact, she heads toward her doctorate in ethnomusicology at the University of Washington this fall.
That likely wouldn't have happened if it wasn't for a mind-bending trip to Southeast Asia she took as part of her undergrad percussion performance studies at the University of Montana.
She shares that tale here.
The night lasted for days.
My percussion ensemble and our mentor Dr. Bob Ledbetter boarded a plane from Seattle to Taiwan as the sun set.
When we landed in Taiwan it was light out. The analog airport clocks told me we moved back in time.
As the same sun set for the second time that day, we boarded another plane.
The screen attached to the seat in front of me showed a map of the world and a little airplane moving slowly across the Pacific Ocean with a red chem-trail following behind.
I turned off the screen and tried not to think too hard about how swollen my ankles were from sitting in the same place. I turned on my iPod—remember those?—and closed my eyes.
When I opened them again, I noticed the sky brightened. We were moving back in time again.
We landed in Denpasar, Bali just before another sunset. We got our luggage, passed customs, then went to find our friends and hosts, the Lasmwan family.
Once outside, the humidity hit me like a brick wall.
The wave of Balinese taxi drivers descending upon us hit harder. They looked at my group and our suitcases and flashed badges in a language I didn’t know to signal they were official.
I felt intensely aware of myself as an outsider. They followed us down the sidewalk, asking questions in Balinese and then in English. Anxious, I mumbled No thank yous and kept walking quickly down the sidewalk. We looked up and down and all over for our teacher.
The heat was overwhelming. I felt sweat dripping down my neck.
We made our way to a parking garage and I breathed a sigh of relief—Pak Made Lasmwan was smiling in front of two large black vans. I escaped into the back seat. We drove off into the final sunset of the day.
A few hours outside of the city, and a few thousand feet up, we reached the mountainous Bangah village. The air was crisp. The people were happy. The village woke up the next morning early, smiling and unstressed.
I, on the other hand, woke up after the longest day of travel I had ever had and rushed inside for the “Kopi,” Balinese cowboy coffee.
It was only then that I noticed the neighbor’s rooster singing and offerings of rice and rupiah, Balinese currency, in the eastern most corner of every room—and saw Pak Madé’s two sons, Putu and Ade, sitting cross-legged on the floor of a structure with a pointed, shackled roof with no walls.
They were facing each other playing Gender Wayang, a specific type of Balinese Gamelan music. The instruments they both played consisted of 10 graded metal bars strung across a frame with bamboo resonators under each bar.
The frame itself was ornate—and hinted at the ornate music that emanates from it.
The gold and red painted wood of the instrument had all the hallmarks of a handmade and well-loved work of art. It depicted detailed flowers and gargoyle-like creatures from stories in the Ramayana, an ancient Sanskrit epic by the sage Valmiki and dated around 500 BCE to 100 BCE.
Putu and Ade casually played together, holding wooden mallets in each of their hands. It’s a mellow type of music with gentle gestures.
They played in a way that did not beg for attention—yet I couldn’t stop watching and listening.
The 10 bars sounded different, almost out of tune, to my American ears, but instead of ringing wrong, it shimmered in the most right way. The notes rhythmically and harmonically interlocked, creating an undulating melody, moving quickly and slowly all at once.
In that I recognized an iconic quality of Gamelan music. And something was unlocked in me.
After breakfast it was time to begin our first morning rehearsal with Pak Madé. (Pak means "teacher.") We were preparing to perform at a ceremony a couple weeks later.
I had studied Gamelan music with Pak the prior spring semester at school so I thought I had a fairly decent idea of the music we would be working on.
I did not.
As much as I thought I was prepared to deep dive into Balinese Gamelan, the rehearsals were intense in a way much different than I was used to. Instead of handing out sheet music from which to read, Pak Made would sing the melodies to us and ask us to play it back.
It turned into a true test of memory and recall and it quickly revealed that my peers and I really didn’t know all the nuances of this music.
Pak would repeat and repeat the phrases for us as we tried our best to maneuver through this new way of learning. The melody kept getting confused in my head and it didn’t help that the person next to me was playing the exact inverse of what I should play (thus creating the interlocking melody mentioned before).
I remember looking down at my little instrument in frustration when failing to recite the melody after 10 minutes of instruction. As a music student at the collegiate level, I should be getting it by now.
I sighed in defeat.
Pak Madé then sat in front of me and played the instrument with me so that I could mirror his movements. I got the hang of it a little better after that.
The next morning, Pak Madé gave a small lecture concerning his pedagogical practice and the history of Gamelan.
He taught from the ground up. He taught us to slow down. He taught us to listen; to close our eyes and put our ears to the earth. From there, he said, we can gather the whole expression of the music and understand how the small, high-pitched, fast parts are made of the same material as the big, slow and low parts.
I also learned that Balinese Gamelan music starts and finishes with a gong. It is a massive instrument and at the center of everything. It is both felt and heard, like the deep rumble of an earthquake or the resonant tone of a wine glass tapped with a spoon.
The gong is both the beginning and the end of each phrase and song in Gamelan music. In this way, much like the sunsets that kept repeating on my journey to Bali, Gamelan music cycles over and over itself, moving backwards and forwards at the same time.
I looked out past our rehearsal area to the big banana leafs and green everything beyond. My head spun.
I realized then that cycles are a running theme in so many aspects of my life: happiness and sadness picking up where the other left off, seeds growing into flowers, failure followed by achievement.
Pak then emphasized the importance of the taksu, the spirit.
Taksu can be translated as “charisma” or “the life in art.”
After experiencing Gamelan music performed by Balinese people themselves, I came to understand what that meant.
One humid evening we traveled into the village of Tabanan to hear a Gamelan Gong Kebyar performance. Kebyar, developed in the early twentieth century, is named after its explosive and dynamic character.
The event was inside a large brick building packed with locals and tourists. Three groups were to perform—children, men and women—and all were accompanied by dancers that told the Hindu story of each song.
The show was somewhat reminiscent of an opera with its dramatic stage set. However, instead of a pit orchestra, where the musicians are hidden under the stage, the Gamelan instruments were proudly displayed on both sides of the stage.
There were at least three dozen ornately carved bronze metallophones of all sizes, huge gongs, drums and hand cymbals. A gold and maroon backdrop showed masterfully painted images of Hindu deities.
As the music began, dancers graced the stage wide-eyed, adorned with bold makeup, and intricate gold wristbands, anklets, earrings, and headpieces. Their movements were rigid and oddly captivating.
They moved their heads and eyes and fingers in rhythm with the music. When the music got loud, the dancers moved faster and took up more space. When the music was more subdued, their movements were likewise understated—like a quick turn of the wrist or a blink of an eye.
During one song in particular, though, the music washed over me with a forceful heaviness I had never experienced before.
I recognized the characteristics of all parts of the ensemble. Each instrument had its individual voice emphasizing the unifying point—that the taksu was here, that these Balinese people had a spirit of artistry and energy so strong that even an outsider like me could understand in my marrow.
The explosion of gongs and reyongs intensified—and felt like a punch in the stomach. The piece was brutal, as if it was screaming, insistent on being heard. It was beautiful in a painfully deep way‚ unsettling—but also full of heart and bravery. I groaned, closed my eyes, and put my head in my hands.
During the following week’s rehearsals, I attempted to harness and keep that energy inside me.
The day of our big performance for the Bangah Temple Ceremony, we packed up the Gamelan instruments and dressed in our temple attire (sarong, dainty lace blouse, satin belt, make up) and drove to the temple to unload. The weather was overcast and by the time we arrived it was lightly drizzling rain.
After unloading, we moved up through the Bangah village to meet up with another Gamelan group. Then men dressed as warriors joined in the ceremony. Incense was lit and women carried baskets of beautiful arrangements of fruit and flowers on their head.
Prayers were sung into an amplified speaker and two men hit wooden logs together as a call to bring all the villagers together.
The Hindu religion is so ubiquitous in Bali that it is hardly discussed or explained by the villagers. There was a big part of me that wanted to ask a lot of questions—but there was also just as big of a part that respected the sacred mystery that swallowed me.
I marched on with all the others back to the temple. Pak Madé soon appeared by the gamelan ensemble. I sat down behind the reyong with reverence. This would be our last performance of the trip.
Kids, young adults, and elders alike all gathered close.
We began performing Wayang Topeng—a play with masked actors, dancing and retelling Hindu stories of creation. The kids laughed at jokes in the play and sometimes danced along.
The villagers were all very familiar with the play, the story, and the music. I felt nervous and outside of my head. I struggled to remember my parts. I couldn’t shake how out of place I felt.
The show ended with the death-mask dance. The dancer, without speaking, stepped into the crowd and began leading the villagers up to the big temple as we continued to play.
We finished the music and Pak Madé and his sons rushed up to the temple without a word to us. It seemed urgent and serious.
Soon enough, our college teacher Dr. Ledbetter escorted us to the dining area to eat our last meal of the day. Compared to the spotless beauty of temples, the instruments, the clothing, the offerings, the dining area was a lot less clean.
I looked down and saw trash and plastic scattered about. I looked down the hill and saw a landslide of debris from the ceremony. One of my peers walked by me and stepped on a plastic water bottle, spraying my ankle along the way.
I looked over at the rest of my group and their complaints about the seventh serving of rice for the day, their tired eyes and soreness. In the distance, a local Gamelan group played for the ceremony as it progressed without our presence.
I liked the sound of that better. I listened for a moment and decided to make my way back to the temple.
I crested a hill and saw at least a hundred villagers sitting without shoes, on the damp ground and in the light rain, fronting an open pavilion facing their temple.
I noticed young women processing toward it. They danced, holding their offering to the gods above their heads. I recognized one of the women who frequently helped on the compound.
They moved gracefully. Each and every action and choice was aligned to their faith, from their dress to their movements, with the offerings to their spirit.
An older Balinese lady saw me looking in on the ceremony and motioned for me to come over. She pointed to a place next to her where I should sit.
I walked over timidly, took off my shoes, and sat down, amazed by her kindness and openness. We stayed there in silence watching the dancing and the procession of priests walking to different areas of the crowd and wafting their hands through incense and splashing holy water over the villagers.
The priests then processed over to us. I looked over at the lady, asking with my eyes What should I do? Am I allowed here?
She smiled at me. She bowed her head and I did the same. The priests walked passed and splashed water over me with a banana leaf and their hands guided the incense smoke over my head.
I inhaled deeply and felt the whole moment.
The strong odor of floral incense, my cold and dirty feet, my heart slowly warming.
I felt accepted. The wafting Gamelan music, played by the people of the Bangah village, made sense. As the gong ended the last musical song of the night, my emotions cycled into gratitude.
I walked back to the compound in a peaceful silence, trailing behind my peers.
I listened to my own footfalls interlocking with the crickets and cicadas.
My breathing harmonized with gentle wind through the bamboo-lined street.
The endlessly mysterious taksu spirit welcomed me, and felt a little less mysterious.
I settled down for my last night in Bali with expansive emotion.
My eyes shut eagerly.
During the flights back to America, I was too exhausted to unpack the month-long excursion in my mind. I remember sleeping away the hours and staring thoughtless out the window.
But now, writing this story four years later, I see the trip with fresh eyes and ears. Memories come back to me as if the time in between never happened.
I vividly feel the deep, green flora and fauna of the mountainous Bangah village and the weight of the Gamelan Kebyar performance. I remember how the taksu felt the night of the final ceremony.
As an American musician studying Balinese Gamelan music, though, I wonder if my place in the Balinese musical world is valid and I question if I could ever really internalize the true taksu spirit in my playing.
The Balinese practice music as an inclusive ritual, and I see great truth in that type of authentic and communal performance. In my own world, I have come to value the small musical moments among friends and family more than any big stage.
I know I will never completely understand the spirit of Gamelan music.
I think most people must deeply understand and live through the Hindu religion to truly grasp it. But I can take with me my own translation of the taksu spirit and do my best to honor it. I can acknowledge the meeting of transcendent perfection and flawed human artistry and see it in all aspects of my life—the cacophony of the Orcas Hotel kitchen, with all its interlocking sounds, to the evening owl hoots and frog croaks, a musical ensemble that rises everywhere if I listen closely.
My first day in Bali, after four sunsets, I was a student waking up in an ancient and unfamiliar world. My last day, the sunrise warmed up the earth and signaled a new day—a new era—in my life. I was still a student but I felt like I had a place amongst the people of the Bangah, and a resolve to honor, understand and explore culture through music.
The villagers returned my smile that final morning, as they always did. They told me I was welcome, anytime.
I’ll hold them to it. And I'll forever keep what they taught me—humility, work ground up, life in art, taksu.